Matt Roper tells the story of one of his comedy heroes - the late Burmese comedian U Pa Pa Lay who bravely refused to stop highlighting the anguish of his people through his comedy routines
This week marks the fifth anniversary of the death of the Burmese comedian U Pa Pa Lay. Three times jailed by the military Junta for exercising his right to freedom of expression, one of his most famous jokes was this one:
I came all the way from Burma to India, to visit the dentist for treatment. The Indian dentist was very surprised to see me. He asked: "Don't you have dental surgeons in Burma?" I replied, "Yes Sir, but they are unable to work as Burmese people are ordered not to open their mouth by the Military Government of Burma."
Jokes told by U Pa Pa Lay were mainly told "out of public sight" at a backstreet makeshift theatre at his home in Mandalay. There too, he would joke about government corruption, inefficiencies and mismanagement; inflation, intimidation by officials and other topics strictly forbidden to criticize in his homeland of Myanmar.
The Republic of Myanmar – also known as Burma – was ruled by a military regime for almost forty years. Embroiled in rampant ethnic strife for much of its modern life – the country gained its independence from the British Empire in 1948 – its history is well documented but seldom spoken of.
Myanmar during these years was ruled by brutality. It is a country of around 50 million people where a military body of 500,000 soldiers denied the civilian population of their most basic human rights. The Junta was responsible for the widespread use of forced labour, of forcibly evicting 1.5 million people from their lands, imprisoning thousands of political prisoners (many of which were routinely tortured) and for recruiting as many as 70,000 child soldiers – more than any other country in the world – while permitting the use of rape as a weapon of war against women and children.
It takes a person of great courage to take a stand against a regime like that in a place like Myanmar. U Pa Pa Lay was just such a person.
With his comrades U Lu Zaw and Lu Maw by his side, U Pa Pa Lay completed the line-up of a comedy act known as the Moustache Brothers; imprisoned firstly in 1990 for mocking the Junta's refusal to recognize the results of that year's election, and again six years later after giving a performance where they sang a comic song about the Junta. After serving that sentence (detained in a labour camp and forced to work with iron bars across his legs), U Pa Pa Lay was re-arrested in October 2007 by security forces during a government crackdown on protesters amidst an uprising. Released four years later and kept under close surveillance by the Authorities, U Pa Pa Lay and the Moustache Brothers continued to satirize the ruling Junta by performing their trademark slapstick routines of screwball comedy and Burmese dance, often relying on generous donations given by foreign visitors to survive.
Myanmar today is ruled by a quasi-civilian government, adjusting slowly – slowly – to democratic change. U Pa Pa Lay died during the early years of these changes. His brother Lu Maw eulogized him as a daring man. "What is sad is that my big brother did not live to see the 2015 election, because he always told his audiences that 'it's the most important moment for our country.'"
U Pa Pa Lay – along with his fellow comedians U Lu Zaw, Lu Zaw, Zarganar and Kyaw Thu – is to be respected and remembered by the comedy community worldwide. He was a fearless hero who played an important part in highlighting the anguish of a people in a land where peaceful freedom of expression has been so often denied.
It is said that during one of his periods of forced labour, in which he was to smash rocks in prison daily, his fellow prisoners would offer to do half the work for him in exchange for giving them a performance. Such was the affection for U Pa Pa Lay.
His contribution to the world of comedy is symbolic and we are all the better for knowing his story.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he performed for the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings – a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
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